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Mario Vargas Llosa: El hablador (The Storyteller)

I would be hard put to name my favourite Vargas Llosa novel. Virtually all the ones under review here have a lot to recommend them. Indeed, it is difficult to think of many other writers who have produced such a consistently high quality body of work, with few if any weaknesses among them. But I do have a warm feeling for this novel, second, perhaps, only to the hysterically funny Pantaleón y las visitadoras (Captain Pantoja and the Special Service). It’s difficult to say why as it is perhaps the least novelistic of his novels, with much of it falling into the category of anthropology. But, as always, Vargas Llosa does it so well that, whatever you may wish to call it, it is superb.

There are two basic stories going on in this novel with a postmodern frame around them (a novelist (Vargas Llosa) writing a novel about a narrator (Vargas Llosa) telling this story.) One story is about Saúl, an outsider in Peru because he has a very visible birthmark on his face and because he is Jewish. He becomes obsessed with a small Peruvian tribe, called the Machiguengas, who are under threat from civilisation, in the form of rubber-growers and missionaries. Saúl is determined to save them from civilisation. Alternating with his attempts is the storyteller telling of the myths and culture of the tribe. Of course, we have figured out quite early on that the storyteller is Saúl. As he is now into his more postmodern phase, Vargas Llosa is clearly playing with the idea of the role of the storyteller and whether he can transmit the”truth”, whatever that may be. As the ideas and stories of the Machiguengas are transmitted by a Spanish speaker who is outside the tribe, are we getting the Machiguengas’ story or Saúl’s story of the Machiguengas, which may be very different? However, you come out, this is still a very fine novel.

Publishing history

First published in 1987 by Seix Barral
First published in English in 1989 by Farrar Straus Giroux
Translated by Helen Lane